Drop Those Crutches

Learn to let go of the ‘ahs,’ the ‘ums’ and other filler words

Ah-counting words dropping

By Joel Schwartzberg, CC, CL

A client I work with frequently is a very strong speaker—she’s confident, powerful and very aware of her message. Yet, even with all that ability, she makes one mistake consistently and is mostly unaware of it.

She begins nearly every sentence with the word “so.”

“So, I thought we’d start by … ”

“So, I’d like to thank … ”

“So, my answer to that is … ”

“So” is her “crutch word,” a term we Toastmasters are very familiar with. In every meeting, the Ah-Counter is tasked with identifying, and delivering a report on, “overused words or filler sounds used as a crutch by anyone who speaks during the meeting.”

These include words such as “and,” “well,” “but,” “so” and “you know,” but also mere sounds like “ah,” “um” and “er.” Sometimes they include words such as “literally,” “actually” and “basically.” Whatever form they take, crutch words typically have two attributes: 1) overuse, and 2) meaninglessness.

Crutch words are never necessary and may even get in the way of you making your point.

Why Do We Use Crutch Words?

Theories abound about why people use crutch words. In an article for The Atlantic, Jen Doll suggested we use them to “give us time to think, to accentuate our meaning (even when we do so mistakenly), or just because these are the words that have somehow lodged in our brains and come out on our tongues.”

In a widely-shared Harvard Business Review article, Noah Zandan suggests that filler words come in handy when a speaker is “nervous, distracted or at a loss for what comes next … These may give us a moment to collect our thoughts before we press on.”

I personally believe words such as “um” and “ah” emerge when our brain anticipates a void or an uncertain moment in our presentation and basically freaks out, quickly plugging the hole with a pointless sound.

It takes a lot of confidence to start a speech with a strong first word, so speakers sometimes start with “so” or “OK” as a way of easing into a talk, which may seem less intimidating.

In both cases—and regardless of the cause—the “fix” is unacceptable. Any part of your speech that doesn’t support your point will take away from it, even if in little pieces. And you always want to make sense, never nonsense.

How to Overcome Crutch Words

If you don’t have an Ah-Counter handy, many digital apps now exist to help you discover and count your crutch words (the LikeSo app is one example). But simply knowing and counting your crutches may not be enough. For many, using filler words is so routine and reflexive that asking them to stop saying “ah” or “um” by counting them is like asking someone to control his sneezing by having him count his sneezes.

The trick to controlling this habit is substituting another behavior in its place, or at least adopting tactics that reduce its frequency. In my experience, these four strategies can help.

1. Embrace the Pause

Most public-speaking experts agree that the best replacement for a crutch word is a deliberate pause. Whereas filler words create distraction, pauses have multiple benefits: They create suspense, slow down fast talkers, demonstrate confidence, draw audience attention and give speakers the time they need to communicate with precision.

Knowing these benefits, speakers should deliberately pause when they feel a crutch word coming on. It may feel awkward at first, but with practice, you will soon be pausing instead of using crutch words, and there’s no penalty for pausing. Audiences rarely say, “That was a good presentation, but she paused too much.” Like your sophomore year of high school, pauses are so uneventful that they are quickly forgotten.

2. Slow Down

Speakers often use filler words because their mouths are outpacing their minds. Words are coming out erratically and nonsensically before the brain has a chance to organize them into points. But when speakers slow down, they have much more time to plan out the precise phrases they want to use and will not need nonsensical fillers to connect random and pre-baked thoughts.

If you have trouble slowing down naturally, insert more deliberate pauses and raise your volume; both are countermeasures to fast talking. As a naturally fast talker myself, it’s useless to tell myself, Go slower! But raising my volume and adding more pauses are much more actionable and effective.

3. Know Your Point

When speakers don’t have clear points, they’re inclined to ramble. Crutch words are then generated to connect these rambling sentences and ideas (“and, um … so … ”). But if speakers prepare their points in advance and know them well, they’re able to start them efficiently and wrap up once they’ve successfully delivered them, making rambling and desperate connections less necessary. After all, if you start talking before you know what you want to say, you’re bound to say something pointless.

4. Practice

When you’re nervous and anxious, saying anything—even a crutch word—may feel more comfortable than saying nothing. Practicing mitigates that anxiety by making the speaker more familiar with the material. A comfortable and confident speaker has more control, enabling her to embrace pauses and deftly avoid the “ums” and “ahs.” Practice may not always make perfect, but it can give you the confidence to make good public-speaking decisions.

Crutch words are not an indication of your experience or ability. Some executives use crutch words all the time, while some interns never do. But if you know what your problem words are and learn to control them, you’ll be a clearer and more efficient point-maker, and that’s always a goal worth aiming for.

Are you looking for a way to keep track of ‘ahs’ and ‘ums’ at your next Toastmasters meeting? Learn about the Toastmasters mobile app for Ah-Counters in this video:

3 Ways to Make Ah-Counting Count For More

As vice president education for my club, I feel responsible for making sure the Ah-Counter’s report has meaning for members and creates more support than shame. To that end, we instituted three new Ah-Counter responsibilities:

1. The Ah-Counter says “five-plus” to indicate any speaker who uses a crutch word more than five times. This spares speakers the embarrassment of having their 16 “ums” and seven “you knows” broadcast to the world.

2. The Ah-Counter focuses on identifying each speaker’s crutch words. Knowing which filler word you rely on is much more valuable than knowing you’ve said it 13 times. It also makes the Ah-Counter’s presentation more instructive and engaging, and less like he’s announcing contest results.

3. The Ah-Counter always encourages speakers to substitute pauses for crutch words, and praises speakers who use pauses effectively for control.
Remember that the Ah-Counter is not just a counter, but a coach. Use these strategies to both support and elevate the speakers whose “ahs” you count, because they’re also counting on you.

Do You Devalue Your Success Because of Self-Doubt? You May Have Impostor Syndrome.

How high performers overcome insecurity

By Maureen Zappala, DTM



What were they thinking when they hired me? They must have made a mistake.” That’s what I thought at my first
post-college job, as a project engineer at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in Cleveland, Ohio. Surrounded by engineers, rocket scientists and researchers, I thought I didn’t belong. “I’m not as smart as they are. They’re going to figure out I’m a phony.”

I was experiencing impostor syndrome. It’s a form of self-doubt that plagues smart, accomplished and well-qualified people, causing them to devalue their skills and dismiss their success. They feel like frauds, as if they somehow tricked the world into thinking they’re smarter than they really are.

The phrase “impostor syndrome” was first coined in 1978 by Drs. Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, two clinical psychologists who identified a pattern among high-performing, successful women. Despite external evidence of great accomplishments, these women could not internally accept their own success. They dismissed it, attributing it to luck or people overestimating their intelligence. They felt like frauds. Initially, the experience was thought to be limited to only women, but research since then indicates otherwise. In 2012, Amy Cuddy, author of the best-seller Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, gave a TED Talk during which she described her own experience of feeling like an impostor. She was inundated with letters from men saying they felt the same way.

At the core of the impostor syndrome is an inability to confess to your success. It’s difficult for you to embrace your expertise and acknowledge your abilities. The result is twofold: You either refrain from taking on challenges, or you take on a challenge but are too worried about failing to enjoy it, even when you do it well.

Many Toastmasters can experience the impostor syndrome, which is often triggered by stepping into a new, unfamiliar assignment. Their confidence doesn’t match their competence. A Distinguished Toastmaster from Connecticut who owns her own marketing consulting firm confessed, “I took a leadership role in the Pathways rollout, and I didn’t feel qualified. I had the training, but I still felt like I needed to know more.” Another member, a pet-care-industry professional, reflected on her involvement in a Toastmasters speech contest: “I volunteered to be club contest chair. I was a one-year member and had never seen a contest. I visited another club first to observe its contest and studied some on YouTube. I figured I would be replaced at any moment for failing. Thankfully, I did not fail.”

Imagine being free from this chronic self-doubt, and able to enjoy the challenge of a new assignment or the success of a job well done. Imagine not constantly wondering if failure is just around the corner. It’s possible. You can match your confidence to your competence to unleash more influence. These four strategies can help.

1 Get the information.

Overcoming impostor syndrome begins with learning about it, and how it can affect people in all fields, including technology, engineering, art/design, education, entertainment, sports, law and business. It affects executives, career changers and entrepreneurs. American actress Sally Field, poet Maya Angelou and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg have all confessed to it. Tennis champion Serena Williams and famed author John Steinbeck also struggled with impostor syndrome. Speaking on what it’s like to ascend to the highest position in most organizations—chief executive officer—Starbucks’ longtime CEO Howard Schultz told The New York Times, “Very few people, whether you’ve been in that job before or not, get into the seat and believe today that they are now qualified to be the CEO. They’re not going to tell you that, but it’s true.”

If you identify as a self-doubter, you probably share these symptoms. Typically, when facing a new assignment, you either over-prepare or procrastinate as long as possible and then burst into action. Either way, you do an outstanding job. People praise you, but you can’t enjoy it because you’re thinking “Oh no … I need to do it again!” The cycle repeats when you are faced with the next challenge. You probably also strive for uniqueness or perfection, because being ordinary or mediocre is unacceptable. You often don’t delegate because you think it shows weakness. You’re charming and funny, but it’s meant to deflect attention from the fact that you don’t think you’re smart enough. You do everything you can to either eliminate failure, or completely avoid it. Oddly, you fear success because you don’t think you can repeat it. Finally, you dismiss compliments by attributing success to something random like luck or timing.

“Our thoughts affect our feelings, which influence our actions, which create habits that set the direction and tone of our lives.”

Toastmasters around the world provided input for this article. A successful sales manager said, “After being elected as our club president, I still feel incompetent. I am only a CL! I feel that there are many far more qualified Toastmasters who would be a better leader for our club.” Another member, a well-respected and experienced physician, revealed, “When people praise me for a speech, I feel they’re just saying it to be nice.” Yet another member, a highly educated IT consultant, confessed, “I was averse to giving my first speech evaluation. I felt unqualified, and that my evaluation would not do justice to the speaker.” A business analyst implied he’d rather not volunteer for a role than face failure.

2 Examine the accusation.

The self-doubter battles a relentless internal dialogue of incompetence accusations. Our thoughts affect our feelings, which influence our actions, which create habits that set the direction and tone of our lives. Gaining control of our thoughts is essential. Cognitive behavioral therapy explains the link between thoughts and feelings and helps people think differently so they behave differently. It’s a complex process, but a modified condensed three-step approach can be quite helpful.

Step 1: Capture the thought.

When you recognize a symptom, immediately capture your thought. For example, the instant you think “I’m not entering the speech contest because if I fail, I’m a fool,” hold on to that thought.

Step 2: Cross-examine the thought.

Next, evaluate what evidence supports this thought to establish if it’s true or false. “I don’t think poorly of other contestants who don’t win. Why would they think that of me? And what if I win? It would be fun. Plus, rehearsing will help grow my skills.”

Step 3: Counter the thought.

After you’ve captured and cross-examined the thought, then you counter the thought with decisive action. “OK! Sign me up! I’m in!”

3 Cultivate conversation.

Cultivating the conversation means making connections and building community. When you realize you are not alone in this experience its detrimental power is defused. Chances are there are others in your club who feel like you do.

It’s beneficial to be honest, even vulnerable, without losing your dignity. For example, if you’re a first-time contest chair, say, “I want to do a good job. Can you teach me?” Maybe you are evaluating an experienced speaker and you don’t feel qualified. Ask the speaker ahead of time, “What specifically would you like feedback about? I’d like to help you.” If you are a leader, engage others by asking for their help. Your team will have greater respect for you. It will create an opportunity for more people to be involved in the problem, which could lead to a better solution. Most significantly, cultivating conversations like this gives others permission to do the same thing. Transparency is contagious.

4 Collect your documentation.

In 1997, shortly before I left NASA, I wrote a 14-page “job manual” describing every aspect of my job … the policies, the procedures and the people involved. I wrote it to ease the transition for my successor, and it helped immensely. In 2015, I rediscovered the document in a closet. I read it and thought, “Wow. I was good!” I forgot how complex the job was. Putting it on paper forced me to be objective about it.

Try it. Pretend you are training your successor, and create your own “job manual.” Include every detail even if you think it’s mundane or trivial. Then, put the document aside, and revisit it at another time. Then, read it as if it were someone else’s job description. Be as objective as you can; observe the details and complexities. As you read, be impressed with what’s there—because you are impressive.

Need more confirmation? Collect your good press. Keep thank-you notes, letters of appreciation and any type of recognition. Keep your trophies, certificates, special emails, texts, photos, gifts, newspaper clippings, magazine articles, plaques, performance appraisals, promotion letters, even old pay stubs (which validated that what you did warranted cash compensation!). This is all evidence of your competence. Review them, believe them and enjoy them—frequently. You earned them. It’s not egotistical; it’s essential to overcoming your self-doubt. Resist the temptation to discount them or explain them away as luck or some other random factor, because you did your part to earn the recognition. Don’t discount an award if it wasn’t as high as you wanted, because giving your best beats being the best.

Similarly, don’t confuse being the expert with being an expert. There’s plenty of room for many experts on the same topic.
Pushing Your Envelope

In the jet-engine industry, every aircraft engine has its own “operating envelope,” the range of speeds and altitudes that allow safe operation. At NASA, we would often “push the envelope,” and run the engine past its normal safe conditions to test a new concept. It almost always produced a new and larger operating envelope.

“Giving your best beats being the best.”

You have your own operating envelope. But it can be larger. Toastmasters is the ideal laboratory for pushing your own envelope. You can turn down the volume of that limiting impostor syndrome that kidnaps your confidence. These strategies can free you, so you can push the envelope of your self-imposed limitations. You can be bolder and more courageous. You can take more risks and truly enjoy your success, as other Toastmasters will confirm.

A DTM who is a project manager by profession says, “Getting feedback for my speeches helped me overcome self-doubt and increase my self-confidence. While it helps me in Toastmasters, the big benefit is at work and other organizations.” A club president who works as a college instructor says, “Overcoming self-doubt can’t help but spill over into your everyday life. It’s as if you’ve put on something—confidence—and you wear it everywhere.”

Cue in to the Value of Originality

Light Bulbs

How creative content and delivery help you stand out.

By Stuart Pink, CC, CL

One of the joys of being a Toastmaster is listening to fellow members’ personal stories in club meetings. Each new Toastmaster giving an Ice Breaker speech has an instinct to be interesting and original. At the other end of the spectrum, Toastmasters attending the International Convention can hear up to 32 Semifinal speeches in one day! Those speakers have a big challenge: How to stand out?

Creativity can be defined as an original idea that has value. As speakers, we want our speeches to be of value to our audiences. If you are an expert or a thought leader in your field, that value could be in conveying an original message for the purpose of informing, persuading or entertaining. Even if your point is not completely original, you can add value by surrounding it with creative content and delivery.
Creative Speech Content

The topic you choose to address is undoubtedly a major opportunity to distinguish yourself from other speakers, whether at a contest, conference or meeting. Even if you cannot control the underlying material you are speaking about, take advantage of techniques to liven it up.

First, you need your message to be clear. If your presentation includes complicated ideas or jargon, try to simplify it. If an audience cannot follow you, they will lose interest. Don’t include too many facts or statistics. Can you present a fact in a novel way that the audience can understand or relate to? For example, instead of saying that the world’s population increases by 83 million people every year, you could say it is like adding the population of ­Germany annually or of New York City about every five weeks!

If you are free to choose your own speech topic, then a good starting place for original content is your unique experiences or stories.

“Originality has no magic formula,” says Olivia Schofield, a 2011 World Championship of Public Speaking finalist, who is from England but now lives in Berlin. “It’s in your personal story. We’ve all had similar things happen to us, but originality is found in what exactly happened to you and how it affected you.” She used her finalist speech to tell her tale of overcoming a speech impediment with the help of a teddy bear named Wodwik (i.e., Roderick).

“If you do something ­dramatic in your speech that has nothing (or little) to do with the speech, then it is just a gimmick.”

International speech contestants sometimes worry that others have already said everything that can be said. But by reflecting in-depth on both your passions and the specific details of your experiences, you can create something unique. As Schofield notes, “Originality is about looking at something from a different angle and seeing the value in it that other people may not see.” This helped Mohammed Qahtani from Saudi Arabia earn the title of 2015 World Champion of Public Speaking. His highly original opening dialogue about smoking and made-up diabetes facts came from an actual conversation with friends.

At a recent Toastmasters meeting, I witnessed a guest introduce herself by telling a short story about her hobby of mushroom picking in the summer. She created a vivid picture that fascinated and entertained her audience as well as made us want to learn more about mushrooms. You never know what might make good speech content!
Creative Speech Delivery

After speech content, your next task is to decide how to deliver what you’ve written. One decision is whether to use a slideshow or props. Although they may be the norm in business environments, PowerPoint presentations can distract audiences from the speaker. Slideshows and props should be used only if they help speakers get their messages across. A recent example I saw of an excellent slideshow presentation was about the different personalities of greyhound dogs. The speaker used slides to show different expressions on the dogs’ faces that could not have been conveyed through words alone.

A member in my club recently spoke about making the perfect chocolate chip cookie. A golden rule in speaking is to leave the audience with no questions unanswered. In anticipation of this, the speaker brought the actual cookies to taste and the recipe for anyone who wanted to make them!

Another important way to be creative is to interact with your audience. You could ask them questions or use humor, which is appropriate in just about any speech. The secret to humor is not to tell jokes but to uncover wit in the stories you tell by seeing the funny side of things. As a rule, if you can make your friends or family laugh with a story, then you can make an audience laugh. Sometimes situations become funny when retold. Dananjaya Hettiarachchi, the 2014 World Champion of Public Speaking from Sri Lanka, turned the line “I see something in you … but I don’t know what it is” into an increasingly hilarious piece of advice as he interacted with the audience during his winning speech.

Creativity in Speech Contests

The Toastmasters International Speech Contest offers an opportunity to watch speakers take creativity to the extreme. Competitive speeches are designed to showcase a speaker’s range of talents in a short time, and are quite different from a speech you’d give in a club or a boardroom. Nevertheless, they are worth studying to see what is original and engaging.

One famous moment in Toastmasters’ World Championship of Public Speaking history was when Darren ­LaCroix in the 2001 finals “fell” on the stage seconds into his speech and proceeded to address the contest chair and audience from there.

“Competitive speeches are designed to showcase a speaker’s range of ­talents in a short time, and are quite different from a speech you’d give in a club or a boardroom.”

A common misconception about creativity and originality is that all ideas must be totally new. In fact, most ideas and ­inventions build upon those that have come before. This is the case in music, art, science—you name it. For example, Thomas Edison was not the first to invent the light bulb. He improved on previous designs for the glass bulb and the glowing filament inside until he had an invention that was commercially viable. When speaking, the important point is that any creative device you use in your speech delivery must be adapted to the message of your speech. If you do something dramatic in your speech that has nothing (or little) to do with the speech, then it is just a gimmick. LaCroix’s falling down was central to his theme because he noted that when you get up, you’ve made progress.

Another example is Aaron Beverly’s 57-word title for the speech that earned him second place at the 2016 World Championship. It wasn’t the first time a speaker had written an extremely long title, but Beverly’s worked because it illustrated the importance of brevity. While you don’t want to copy someone else’s idea, you can creatively adapt it to help convey your message. In the business world, it is worth studying the presentations of Steve Jobs of Apple to see how to deliver creative presentations. When he introduced the new iPhone, he built excitement and suspense, teasing his audience with humor and making them wait before he finally revealed the product.

Whether you are speaking at work, in a club meeting or in a contest, think about how you would react to your speech if you heard it. Would you be excited? If not, think about ways to make the content, delivery or both more creative. A speech that is creative will be memorable and interesting to the audience, as well as enjoyable for the speaker to deliver.

From the “New Miami,” to learning American Politics, to Living a Dog’s Life….

You missed a great hour if you didn’t make it to our Miracle Mile Toastmasters meeting.  There were 2 marvelous prepared speeches, and innovative Table Topics questions. We learned one of our members won an award at her company’s “boot camp” training, another Award Winning Toastmaster will be off to London to continue her career there, and OMG, if Alex could be anything else it would be a dog???

Our first speaker, Angela Martinez is a Miami Realtor who spoke about “The New Miami.”  Angela compared the real estate market to the stock market with it’s ups and downs.  “After all, it can’t always be driving upward.”  We’ve certainly seen bumps in the road, but understanding what drives and sustains the market is important.  Some of the statistics she gave were encouraging.  Buying a home can be an excellent investment as a place to live or to rent.  Currently 50% of the homes/condos in Miami are rented.  Miami is the #2 city in the country when looking at population growth.  We have more than 26,000 additional jobs in January 2017, than in January 2016.  Future development looks excellent.  It seems now is an exciting time for the real estate industry.

Our second speaker was Felix Lorenzo.  Coming from Cuba he brings an interesting perspective to his speeches.  He said on his arrival to the United States, folks said he came from a banana country (or republic).  He wasn’t quite sure what that was.  Felix noted that as a young person Communist newspapers were shut down.  Later after regime changes, he noted that many people who worked actively in the former government, found jobs in the new — there was a requirement however — becoming a communist.  Today, Felix is neither a Republican nor a Democrat.  Instead he is proudly an Independent.  What he does do is listen to both sides of political discussions and recommends we practice using our listening skills as well.

Table Topics was most enjoyable.  Our speakers were Tu Duong, Alex Moreira, Jerry Bailey, Ghislaine Demombynes, Arlene Amitirigala, Hang Tran and Mike Molina.  It was hard to choose the top three from this group.  In third place was our award-winning Table Topics speaker, Arlene Amitirigala, speaking on WHAT?  She’s moving to London!  Our loss is the UK’s gain.  In second place was Mike Molina who admitted he doesn’t think about others as often as he should.  Our Mike?  Say it isn’t so.  And the winner was Alex Moreira who believes a dogs life isn’t so bad.  His mentor:


Our evaluation team (Chris Mesa, Elena Cobo and Sharon Patish) gave us all something to think about before we deliver another speech.

  • In order to make a point — use examples that are relevant to the audience.
  • If your giving statistics round up your numbers (i.e, more than 20,000 instead of 20,435).
  • Make your ending strong.  Preface it with a comment like, “This I know for sure.”
  • Organize the speech.
  • Where possible use a conversational tone.

Thanks to everyone who made this meeting so much fun.

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